The waiter has a toilet plunger over his shoulder. “He locked his keys in his car,” the bartender explains. “He’s trying to get the window down.”
I feel ancient: my first thought was a coat hanger. “In my day,” I say—oh my God did I actually just start a sentence that way? And why do we think we ever owned an epoch?—“it was easy. You just wangled a wire hanger through the crack and used the hook at the end to lift the door lock.”
The bartender’s brow furrows.
“Door locks looked like golf tees,” I explain, “and they stuck up.”
The hanger trick worked every time. The toilet plunger does not. We have filled our lives with stuff that is smarter than we are, and therefore refuses to be tweaked or repaired by us. Is it any wonder we feel helpless most of the day? Knowing how to tinker with something, how to tighten or loosen or reconnect it, rushed a sense of power to the brain. Simple common sense gave us the peace of mind that a survivalist gets by packing a cave with canned goods.
Now, our stuff is smart, seamless, and opaque. If your car dies, you open the hood and stare at computerized parts you are helpless to adjust. In the kitchen, you lock your food inside an air fryer or sous vide or instant pot and do other things until the beeper goes off—no chance to stir, taste, add, or turn the heat up or down. Our first house had a 1942 Magic Chef stove I miss to this day. To use the oven, I had to light the pilot manually, down on my hands and knees, sticking a flamestarter into a hole until I heard the whoosh of success. It was satisfying. I had made something happen.
Tech makes miracles happen. It accomplishes tasks that would take us a hundred lifetimes. But all most of us know how to do is unplug or restart. Planned obsolescence used to mean we would want the newer model; now it means the old one is unfixable. “It’d cost you more for us to try to repair it, ma’am”—how many times have I heard that? “You’d be better off getting a new one.”
For a minute, Apple seemed ready to listen. I read that the company was vowing to find ways for us to keep our phones and just update them, rather than starting over every time there was a significant improvement.
The new fascinates us. It shines brighter, promises a fresh start. Being told it will be “cheaper to buy new” relieves my conscience and gives permission to purchase, which is always more exciting than spending either money or maddeningly tedious time repairing something I already own, something that has already exhausted its brief magic.
So I buy, and once again vow that this time I will learn all this device or appliance is capable of. I will use it fully, in every way possible. Never happens. Look for the simplest object, I remind myself, the one that does only what you want it to do. Stop falling for the flashing-neon features that dazzle because they are extra, unnecessary, superlative. Manufacturers add them as lures, but they only complicate the thing, making it even harder to repair. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” Thoreau recognized already, even in his plainer age. “They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
So easy to whine about the manufacturers’ cunning. The real problem is not their bells and whistles but my own greed and laziness. Somebody says “It’d be cheaper to buy new,” and I grab for the excuse and run to the laptop to find what wonderful new version is on offer. Why is cheaper the only criterion, and why does it permit excess? Because that is how we roll. Close your eyes and try to imagine someone saying, “It’d be more socially responsible to repair it.” A truth never told—at least, not by those in the business of selling us stuff. And they are winning. The only place I knew that repaired old appliances—a dusty shop crammed with antique gadgets and gizmos, an old guy behind the counter with specs slid down his nose and a ham sandwich wrapped in wax paper at his elbow—closed years ago.
The remaining option? DIY. And here is where YouTube makes a liar of me, because it offers an infinite scroll of videos explaining how to repair any knocking fridge, loose faucet, leaky disposal, fuzzy tv, gurgling toilet, or flickering lamp. What I do is, I watch a few videos, pick out the clearest instructions, and send the link to my husband, who saves the link and puts the task on the eternal list. And a day or a month later, I lose patience and call somebody handy, and we pay a sizable chunk of change. Or I call the place we bought the thing and hear that we might as well get a new one.
Outsourcing life’s breakage is far easier than kneeling down in front of it with rolled-up sleeves and a toolbox. William Rose, on Quora, stops me short with his gentle response to someone else aggravated about “having” to buy new. “Try to repair everything and learn from each repair whether successful or not,” he urges. “But you have to have lots of patience. If you quit each time it doesn’t work you learn little.… Almost anything can be fixed if you have the patience to take your time and think it through.”
So simple, and so difficult. I would rather argue about large, uncontrollable market forces, finding yet another accusation to hurl against late-stage capitalism and a tech-obsessed society. And yes, the problem might indeed be systemic. But the root of my distress—and its solution—are not. The deeper problem is not the predatory trickery of planned obsolescence or the high cost of labor in the United States. and the low cost of manufacturing overseas. It is not the closure of that sweet, fusty shop or the stubbornly slow pace of the honey-do list. It is my own impatience, my terror of taking something apart and finding that this half-hour task will take me two weeks. I already feel helpless and unable to fix stuff, because I know the process will have me cussing and grumbling and throwing hammers within minutes. And soon after that, I will disappoint Mr. Rose by quitting flat-out.
So has tech made me feel helpless? Or does tech just make it more appealing to spend my time sliding around the internet, feeling the thrill of the hunt, exerting only my fingertips and a small slice of my brain? If the latter is true, never fear, I can still blame tech. Its ease, its sense of limitlessness and possibility, has sucked away what little patience I owned at birth and left me lazy.
Thoreau was lazy, too. He did the least work necessary, and he was quick to admit, “I would rather mend the broken semicolon in a verse than write two lines myself.” But he was a genius at DIY, and his ultimate project, like mine, was to repair himself. As the old classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes clear, “The ‘machine’ that appears to be ‘out there’ and the ‘person’ that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.